A Syrian in Greece: remembering better days, hoping to return one day

News Stories, 17 May 2013

© UNHCR/B.Szandelsky
Leilah holds a photo album, the most important thing she managed to bring with her to Greece. It reminds her of happier times with her family and her missing husband back in Syria.

ATHENS, Greece, May 17 (UNHCR) Leilah can't hold back the tears when she leafs through the family photo album. It's the only thing she managed to bring with her from Syria a potent reminder of better days with her husband and six children in their home country.

They led a happy and relatively comfortable life running a small village shop in northern Syria until the war broke out more than two years ago. Today, the 40-year-old Leilah lives in a dilapidated apartment in Athens with her children, two of whom were out looking for work when UNHCR visited. Her husband remained in Syria and she has no idea if he is safe or not.

Leilah, who asked that her name be changed, is among several thousand Syrian civilians who made their way to Greece in search of safety. Many of them thought that their ordeal would end when they reached Europe. But they got a rude shock the Syrians were regarded as irregular entrants in Greece.

Until recently, they were detained in substandard conditions, following the issuance of deportation orders. "Administration detention for the purpose of removal was ordered in cases of irregular entry and stay in a systematic manner, irrespective of the fact that returns are impossible to implement [because of the continuing conflict in Syria]," said Giorgos Tsarbopoulos, who heads UNHCR's office in Greece.

When released, Syrians have to fend for themselves. They receive no welfare, nor legal documentation that would provide them with a chance for a decent living in the country.

Things have been no different for Leilah during her nine-month ordeal in Athens. One of the most difficult times for the family was when the Greek police arrested Leilah's two eldest sons for lacking documentation. "It felt as if one of my limbs was torn off. I was at a loss," she recalls.

"I used to visit the police station where they were detained almost every day and asked for my sons. But every single day I was turned away, without being given any specific information about the fate of my boys." Leilah's sons were eventually released after 33 days in detention.

Following UNHCR requests for an improvement in the treatment of Syrian refugees, the police last month issued a directive suspending the execution of expulsion or return orders for six months, renewable for as long as the situation in Syria remains unchanged. As a result, Syrians are being released from detention once their nationality is identified. The development was welcomed by UNHCR.

Today, Leilah is happy that she is reunited with all her children. She is also relieved that, thanks to assistance provided by fellow Syrians in Greece, she was able to find better accommodation than her former damp basement in the red-light district of Athens. The family had to share a few square metres with 16 other people.

Maarouf, a Syrian doctor who has lived in Greece for the past 28 years, is one of the few people offering assistance to needy Syrians. He knows their problems from experience. "Syrians arriving in Greece, mostly families with children, live under dramatic conditions," he says. "They have no means to survive and depend on help offered by other Syrians or non-governmental organizations. But their needs are huge."

As she looks at the photos of her husband and other relatives still in Syria, Leilah wonders whether she will ever see them again. "Leaving my country, my home, was like death for me," she says. "What keeps me going are my children and the hope that one day, when peace comes back to my country, I will be able to return home and feel alive again."

Until then, UNHCR believes that Syrians in Greece, like Leilah and her children, deserve appropriate levels of protection that allow them to live in dignity and safety.

By Stella Nanou in Athens, Greece



Greece: Syrian Refugees StrugglePlay video

Greece: Syrian Refugees Struggle

As Syrian refugees escape conflict and seek refuge in Greece, they face major new challenges.

UNHCR country pages

UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador Angelina Jolie meets Iraqi refugees in Syria

UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador Angelina Jolie returned to the Syrian capital Damascus on 2 October, 2009 to meet Iraqi refugees two years after her last visit. The award-winning American actress, accompanied by her partner Brad Pitt, took the opportunity to urge the international community not to forget the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi refugees who remain in exile despite a relative improvement in the security situation in their homeland. Jolie said most Iraqi refugees cannot return to Iraq in view of the severe trauma they experienced there, the uncertainty linked to the coming Iraqi elections, the security issues and the lack of basic services. They will need continued support from the international community, she said. The Goodwill Ambassador visited the homes of two vulnerable Iraqi families in the Jaramana district of southern Damascus. She was particularly moved during a meeting with a woman from a religious minority who told Jolie how she was physically abused and her son tortured after being abducted earlier this year in Iraq and held for days. They decided to flee to Syria, which has been a generous host to refugees.

UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador Angelina Jolie meets Iraqi refugees in Syria

George Dalaras

George Dalaras

The makeshift camp at Patras

Thousands of irregular migrants, some of whom are asylum-seekers and refugees, have sought shelter in a squalid, makeshift camp close to the Greek port of Patras since it opened 13 years ago. The camp consisted of shelters constructed from cardboard and wood and housed hundreds of people when it was closed by the Greek government in July 2009. UNHCR had long maintained that it did not provide appropriate accommodation for asylum-seekers and refugees. The agency had been urging the government to find an alternative and put a stronger asylum system in place to provide appropriate asylum reception facilities for the stream of irregular migrants arriving in Greece each year.The government used bulldozers to clear the camp, which was destroyed by a fire shortly afterwards. All the camp residents had earlier been moved and there were no casualties. Photographer Zalmaï, a former refugee from Afghanistan, visited the camp earlier in the year.

The makeshift camp at Patras

Greece: Ramping up refugee receptionPlay video

Greece: Ramping up refugee reception

UNHCR staff are working with Government authorities, NGOs and volunteers on the beaches of the Greek island of Lesvos to receive cold, wet and fearful asylum seekers making landfall around the clock. They wrap them in thermal blankets and take them to warm, safe emergency accommodation at transit sites, with power and Wi-Fi connectivity.
Serbia: Presevo Crossing from FYR MacedoniaPlay video

Serbia: Presevo Crossing from FYR Macedonia

On October 20, the number of refugees and migrants arriving in Greece passed the half million mark. Their ultimate destination is northern Europe. The majority will take a route that goes from Greece, to FYR Macedonia and then onward through Serbia. At the border point of Presevo, Serbia they must go through a registration process before being allowed to continue their onward journey.
The former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia: Refugees Onward JourneyPlay video

The former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia: Refugees Onward Journey

A transit centre at Vinojug, on FYR Macedonia's border with Greece is where the refugees and migrants pass through on their journey further into Europe. Here UNHCR and partner organisations provide food, water, medical care, psycho-social support and information for refugees who take the train towards the border with Serbia. UNHCR also provides information on how to access the asylum system in the country. In recent weeks, an average of 6,300 refugees pass through the camp every day, yesterday that number grew to 10,000, a record.